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Haunted House Films Are Really About the Nightmares of Gentrification

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. --Hannah Arendt

In the course of 15 years as a tenant organizer, my friend and mentor Artemio Guerra has become intimately, disturbingly familiar with the process of gentrification -- the shifting demographics, the clash of old and new tenants, and the monstrous machinations of landlords bent on pushing out rent-controlled tenants. The threats and harassing late-night calls. Whole buildings left without heat. Bombs planted in lobbies. INS called on immigrant tenants who fight back. A nightmare so pervasive it would surely rate broader attention if it wasn't a "normal" consequence of capitalism.

Artemio and I always end up having long discussions about horror films and politics, so he called me up after seeing the haunted house film Cold Creek Manor. "It's all about gentrification!" he said. "It's a piece of crap, but still ...

He was right on both counts. In the film, an upper-middle class family from New York City moves into a rural working-class community, and finds itself under assault by a crazy handyman who used to live in the house, as well as the angry spirits who haunt it.

Rich city folks move out into the country and find themselves up against nasty poor locals and a ghost in another recent vengeful-spirit film, Wendigo. The more I thought about this recurrent motif, the more I realized: the modern haunted house film is fundamentally about gentrification. Again and again we see fictional families move into spaces from which others have been violently displaced, and the new arrivals suffer for that violence even if they themselves have done nothing wrong.

This thriving subgenre depends upon the audience believing, on some level, that what "we" have was attained by violence, and the fear that it will be taken by violence. In the process, because mainstream audiences are seen as white, and because gentrification predominantly impacts communities of color, the racial Other becomes literally monstrous.

The biggest cliche in the modern haunted house film is that of the Indian Burial Ground. In Pet Semetary, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, the source of the problem is that the real estate parcel in question has desecrated sacred ground.

The conquest of North America could be classified as our most extensive gentrification, where thousands of communities of color were violently pushed out by white settlers manifesting racist destiny. The ubiquity of the Indian burial ground points to screenwriter laziness, but it also constructs a movie-going public all too willing to accept that our homes are literally built upon genocide and terrified that those dead Indians will come back -- not to scalp us or to take "our" land through armed force, but to suck our children into the television or make our husbands go insane and try to kill us with an axe.

Guilt over the North American genocide persists, in spite of centuries of racist history that have clouded the general public's grasp on the extremity of violence perpetrated against the Native Americans -- the broken treaties, the Indian Removal Act, the smallpox blankets. With the death of the Western as a film genre and the success of the Civil Rights Movement in challenging the blatancy of racism in mainstream culture, the Indian-as-bloodthirsty-savage was transformed into the Indian-as-murderous-ghost.

That's one of the main ways the horror genre, on its surface so apolitical, connects to the United States' histories of genocide. How far a leap is it from the menacing ex-slaves in Birth of a Nation to the zombies in Night of the Living Dead? Even though its subtext of displacement and gentrification might foreground race and violence and displacement, the haunted house film participates in the mystification of demographic change by convincing us that we are innocent, and the people we have displaced are monsters.

Displacement creates a paradox: We acknowledge the wrong that has been done but feel powerless to do anything about it. A sort of collective guilt springs up, a sense that we are insignificant cogs in the machinery of economic and social factors that create gentrification. This is particularly true for the middle class, who are often forced by economic necessity to move to gentrifying neighborhoods or to new suburban developments that have demolished pre-existing space.

Regardless of their place on the political spectrum, most people acknowledge that their government does some very bad things, and that they themselves might have to face the consequences. As in Malcolm X's famous comment on the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- "the chickens are coming home to roost" -- and following the Golden Rule, a system that maintains itself through violence will engender a violent response. The price of living in the comfort that globalizing imperialism can provide is the chance that we will be the victims of retaliatory violence -- like the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11.

In the same way, the consequences of gentrification flicker on our radar regardless of whether or not we feel personally culpable. The question is, can we do anything about it? The modern haunted house film tells us that we can't -- that the only way to live in peace is to destroy the monsters we have already replaced.

From its roots in the Gothic tale, the haunted house story has often been about guilt visited upon the innocent for things their ancestors (or husbands, or cousins) did. Somebody did something wrong, and somebody else is paying for it. Think of Jane Eyre, taunted by the madwoman in the attic who turns out to be the wife her lover has locked up. The children in The Turn of the Screw are destroyed by their governess' sexual frustration, manifested in ghost form. In what might be the most influential literary example of the "bad house" story, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the "evil" has its source in its owner/architect's repressive patriarchal Puritanism.

The assumption has always been that "innocent" beneficiaries of privilege won, though violence will be made to pay for that violence. This construction of innocence is disingenuous, since real guilt does exist, even though the complex mechanisms of modern markets fog the issue in ways that play into "our" desire to feel like we have no role or power in the process.

Race is structured out of haunted house films, because the horror film is largely intended to allay guilt -- scary movies invoke it only to exploit and then banish it. Candyman and The People Under the Stairs represent attempts to expose the racial underpinnings of the genre, but even they depend upon the audience (constructed as white) having a pre-existing fear of "black" spaces -- housing projects, tenements, the inner city -- since those spaces are represented in exaggerated forms that exploit middle-class misconceptions.

And even this exploration has come to an end with the current glut of horror films -- witness Dark Water, about an urban renter whose affordable housing is haunted by the ghost of tenants past, and which takes place in a New York where somehow both ghost and victim (and just about everyone else) manages to be white.

What is a ghost?" Stephen Dedalus wonders in Ulysses. "One who has faded into palpability through death, through absence, through change of manners." The haunted house film mimics the workings of the real estate market, where gentrification and urban renewal push people of color into homelessness, into shelters, into prisons. People of color register as monsters -- homeless boogeymen, gangsta rappers, violent crack addicts waiting outside your house.

Gentrification is itself something of a ghost -- trivialized by the mainstream media, ignored by government, distorted in academia as "impossible to quantify," or obfuscated by policymakers -- as in a report from the Brookings Institution that somehow wonders Does Gentrification Harm the Poor? Because the "audience" for gentrification is always the poor, people of color, immigrants, working class seniors, and combinations of the above, the realities of gentrification are usually "invisible" to those who shape the public's understanding of the issues.

In my day job, organizing homeless folks who have been displaced by the tens of thousands by rising rents to fight back against city policies and practices that abet gentrification, there is no question that the poor are harmed by gentrification and that poor people of color are disproportionately harmed (currently, 90 percent of the 35,000 people in NYC homeless shelters are black or Latino). The other thing that's painfully clear is that everyone wants to do something about it. In spite of the mainstream media's demonization of the homeless as crazy, violent substance abusers, many people acknowledge that the presence of homeless people is the result of systemic problems and that homeless individuals are not "garbage."

Despite the claims of local government and real estate interests (if one can indeed claim them as separate) that "neighborhood improvement" will transform poor, crime-infested communities into bright, green utopias, most people are able to see the realities and are eager to support grassroots efforts to transform blighted neighborhoods in ways that do not negatively impact existing demographics. The survival and success of the haunted house film indicates a considerable (subconscious?) guilt, which in turn indicates acknowledgment of culpability and oppression.

Horror films give us back our sins as monsters. The parents who burned Freddy Krueger alive find their randy teenage offspring butchered. Nuclear testing wakes up Godzilla. In slasher films, sexuality is a capital offense. Dr. Frankenstein's hubris leads to the deaths of everyone he loves. And starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, class antagonism has been at the heart of the horror film.

These days, the two most popular plotlines in the dozens of scary movies that come out each year are: (1) A middle class family or group of teenagers wanders into the wilderness and the clutches of a depraved monstrous lumpenproletariate ("The Hills Have Eyes," "Wolf Creek," "The Descent," "Wrong Turn," "Cabin Fever," "Chainsaw Massacre," "Silent Hill"); or: 2) A similar configuration of victims menaced on their own luxurious turf by monsters who symbolize "our" paranoid fantasies of the violent, dispossessed working class, even if they do not actually come from it ("When A Stranger Calls," "Cry Wolf," "Cursed," "Scream," all the slasher films that do not fall under the first category).

The spate of slow-moving zombie films that followed in the wake of "Night of the Living Dead" represent a capitalist nightmare of communist revolution: the brain-dead bloodthirsty working class, desiring nothing but our destruction, rises us up to besiege "us" in our comfortable homes, our malls, our military bases.

Would a haunted house film have any resonance in a communist country? Is it possible to imagine The Grudge in an economic structure where housing is guaranteed -- however problematically -- and where people have extremely limited freedom to choose their own housing? Present-day capitalism leads to an inevitable fetishization of home, of "our" space, rooted in our understanding that nothing is guaranteed. The haunted house film expresses the universal human fear that your home is not safe, that it will be taken from you by violence.

House of Sand and Fog is an honest look at the emotional costs of a system where housing is a commodity, and not a right -- the film can be read as a haunted house tale with no ghosts or monsters, just "normal" human beings whose basic needs are in direct opposition and cannot be reconciled.

Haunted-house escapism allows us to evade two fundamental truths: that on some level we participate in the displacement of others, and that we ourselves are vulnerable to displacement and homelessness. At the same time, the stigmatization of the homeless in media and in governmental policy has become so extreme that "we" equate the homeless with monsters. When you lose your home, you lose your membership in the human community. You become something else: a ghost, a monster.

Not all haunted house films end with the ghosts getting brutally exorcised, or the humans packing up and running for their lives. Although the dynamics always play out as a war of Us vs. Them/ Good vs. Evil/ Old vs. New, the battle sometimes ends in a draw. The parody Beetlejuice, also about clueless, rich, urban gentrifiers colonizing a haunted house in the countryside, ends with the dead and the living recognizing that they are fundamentally the same, and learning to co-exist in harmony. The nature of scarcity economics makes this precise solution impossible with real-life gentrification, but active cooperation across the lines of class and race is not only possible, it's essential.

Expecting a mainstream horror film to give us a road map towards fighting gentrification is as absurd as hoping that an anti-war film will tell us how to stop a war. Instead, art -- bad art, good art, corporate art, independent art -- should prompt us to examine our fears and our assumptions, and move us to a deeper inquiry of how they impact our reality.

The haunted house film makes assumptions that are worth questioning: Who are "we" as an audience? To whom do these films address themselves? Who haunts "our" homes? Whose homes do "we" haunt? But it also contains the seeds of a real dialogue concerning the human costs of the housing crisis, and our responsibility and our power to do something about it.

Right Pitches Dubya as Henry V

Shakespeare always has been, and will continue to be, misread and misquoted in support of any and every position. As a playwright who was himself constantly lifting quotations, sometimes verbatim, from classical and contemporary sources, he probably would be vaguely amused by this enduring phenomenon. After all, he penned the line "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose" (Merchant of Venice), and who better than Shakespeare serves as secular scripture in our world today?

Yet even within the general trend of Bardolatry (evidenced by renewed conspiracy theories, best-selling guides such as Harold Bloom's The Invention of the Human, and the now decade-and-a-half-long resurgence of movies adapting, citing or about Shakespeare), Henry V stands out in the public sphere, long amenable to propagandistic interpretations. In the United States today it enjoys an unchallenged predominance on syllabi for graduate courses in leadership and public policy -- for instance, excerpts from this play (and this play only) appear in at least five courses at The Kennedy School of Government alone.

Last year I was asked by a friend of a friend to serve as a fact-checker for an upcoming profile in Fortune magazine. A consulting company, Movers and Shakespeares, uses the Bard's plays to present "Fun, Team-Building, Executive Training, Leadership Development & Conference Entertainment based on the insights and wisdom of the Bard . . . as relevant in today's world as they were 400 years ago!" (Look closely on the Web site, and you'll find photos of Donald Rumsfeld and Cokie Roberts merrily reciting in costume.) The writer of the Fortune article wanted me to confirm a few of their claims about what Shakespeare's plays teach us.

Most of these claims were, on the whole, largely innocuous, if blandly reductive and politically conservative. The leaders of the workshops, Ken and Carol Adelman, are both Republican politicos and thus tend to read Shakespeare as a kind of proto-free-market capitalist. (Ken "Cakewalk" Adelman occasionally taught Shakespeare at George Washington University's continuing education program, sits on the board of The Shakespeare Theatre, and, in his role as D.C. insider, currently serves as a member of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board.) But what struck me the most about their take on Henry V was their loose use of the plot. Or, rather, their fabrication of it.

One of their "lessons" from Henry's victory at Agincourt was that good leaders leverage superior technology to defeat their enemies. Henry's troops used the longbow, which helped them overwhelm a vastly more numerous French force. This fact is, of course, historically true. But this technological "fact" is one that Shakespeare deliberately omitted from his narrative of Henry's victory, in order to play up the valor of the English soldiers and the glory of God -- he never even hints at the longbow's strategic import. Thus the Adelmans actually invert Shakespeare's own lesson from this play in order to justify a particular business strategy.

The Adelmans rely quite heavily on it for their corporate seminars, and understandably so: Henry makes a number of difficult executive decisions, all having to do with the management of people, in anticipation of, during, and after his expedition to reclaim France. He seeks legal and religious justification for his mission; he traps and executes traitors; he inspires his troops; he metes out justice; he consults; he negotiates; he wins. In short, if you want to be a good leader, you need to be able to "persuade like Henry V," as the handbook Say it Like Shakespeare exhorts us to do.

The historical Henry was far less appealing. Shakespeare, according to 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt, "labours hard to apologise for the actions of the king," but there are still traces of Henry's repellant character present in the play, leading many readers to sense a darker undertone to the apparent celebration of "this star of England," as the Epilogue lauds him.

If you think the business world fawns excessively over Henry, just wait until you hear what the Right does with him. Bill Bennett once introduced Margaret Thatcher with lines from the play; Dan Quayle fancied himself an underappreciated Prince Hal; Henry Hyde likened the managers of the impeachment trial to his fellow Henry's "band of brothers." 

The play is, admittedly, eminently quotable, with purple passages ready-at-hand for such men who would be king as Pat Buchanan (who trumpeted the coincidence of his bid for the Reform Party nomination and St. Crispin's Day, the day of Henry's victory at Agincourt) and Phil Gramm (who likewise invoked the holiday during his exit from the 1996 Republican primaries). Does the insistence of these Republican invocations unwittingly reveal some unspeakable fantasy for monarchical government? (Is it merely accidental that every few years someone re-discovers the Bush family's royal lineage, information that has been public since the first Bush administration?)

Henry V didn't always belong exclusively to Republicans. Woodrow Wilson cited the play, with approval, as representing "the spirit of English life [which] has made comrades of us all to be a nation"; Franklin Roosevelt viewed the rousing Olivier film in a private screening; John F. Kennedy called Shakespeare "an American playwright" after a performance of some lines from Henry V at the White House. Yet Democrats aren't nearly as invested in this drama in recent years. In fact, the closest they come to it is through a pejorative association with kings preceding or following Henry V -- for instance, Jimmy Carter has been painted (literally and figuratively) as Henry VI. Some conservative commentators relished the opportunity to recite Henry IV's dying advice to his son whenever Clinton launched a missile attack:

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War Coverage with a Beat

You wouldn't know it now, but in the early days of the war with Iraq, some of the best and most balanced coverage on television was on MTV.

Yes, that's right, Music Television.

It's true that MTV has dialed down and almost eliminated its war coverage in recent weeks, returning to its party-all-the-time spring break programming. However, in the weeks leading up to the war, MTV's coverage of 11th-hour diplomacy was extensive and detailed. Even through the first week of the war, MTV continued to provide detailed coverage of events at home and around the world.

At first glance, it seems the war couldn't have come at a worse time for MTV, which was getting ready to dive into its legendary spring break coverage from Miami. Scheduled programs with titles like Full Body Search Miami and a "hot or not" contest on Miami's South Beach were scrapped. Those programs are usually sponsor-heavy with some of advertising's heaviest hitters including Pepsi, Sony, Virgin Mobile and major movie studios.

In place of scheduled programming, MTV stuck to a diet of music videos and educational news packages and specials -- and advertisers hung in there. News programs, which could have been termed "Iraq 101," explained the issues, ideas and personalities making headlines; subjects ranged from a brief bio of Saddam Hussein to a history of the United Nations and a definition of the Geneva Conventions. This war-related programming aired during MTV's afternoon prime-time schedule as well as in the evening hours when cable channels and broadcast networks were also airing news reports about the war.

It was a smart decision. According to an MTV poll conducted in early March, more than 60 percent of MTV viewers favored military action against Iraq. The poll coincided with MTV News reporter Gideon Yago's trip to Kuwait for a documentary series about the Marine Corps and young people living in Kuwait and Iraq. (Never one to shy away from making their reporters the focus, MTV titled the series Gideon's Journeys in Kuwait.) An earlier poll, conducted in January, reported that 67 percent of MTV viewers had at least one family member in the military.

The 25-year-old Yago spent time with the 5th Marines "Grizzly Brigade" in the Kuwaiti desert, discovering that in terms of age, at least, the military is composed largely of MTV's target demographic. In one scene, as he walked into a tent to chat with the Marines, he was shocked to see that most of them were close to his age or younger. As the camera panned across soldiers wearing headphones and nodding along to the music, Yago marveled out loud about their youth.

"Almost all of the Marines we talked to are combat virgins, outside of the scores of kills they may have racked up playing video games," he told viewers. "They are young: 74 percent of the Corps is 22 or younger, many are married, engaged or have children, and they believe strongly in their training and in each other."

The Marines crowded around Yago. He asked who their favorite rappers are, and they asked if they could shout out to friends at home. Sitting in a bunker, surrounded by soldiers, Yago was right at home talking music and sports. His reports helped MTV viewers better understand the experiences of their peers stationed in the Middle East.

Back in New York, long-time MTV news anchor John Norris replaced Carson Daly as MTV's most ubiquitous on-air presence. In the run-up to the war, Norris, at MTV's Times Square studio, interviewed Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle in Washington about the pros and cons of invading Iraq.

Norris also went to the United Nations for a sit-down interview with U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. In another segment, Norris spoke with his MTV counterpart in France, and they discussed the frayed relations between the two countries. This hands-across-the-water approach was unseen on any other broadcast or cable network.

But while the network's news teams may have been forging bridges, the music side was forced to take a quieter, no-offense-intended approach. MTV Europe issued a memo March 20 that said, "Obviously, there will be heightened public sensitivity to representations of war, soldiers, bombing, destruction of buildings and public unrest at home. The ITC Programme Code requires us not to broadcast material which offends against good taste or is offensive to public feeling. We therefore recommend that videos featuring the following are not shown at the moment." The memo cited war, soldiers, war planes, bombs, missiles, riots and social unrest, executions and "other obviously sensitive material." The list also included videos with the words bomb, missile, war or "other sensitive words in the artist or song title."

MTV USA may have issued a similar statement, but it hasn't surfaced. However, hip-hop artist Michael Franti said during a March 27 interview with the radio program Democracy Now! that his record company received a mass e-mail from MTV stating that no videos could be shown that mentioned bombing or war.

In the States, a fair amount of self-censorship made news as well. Madonna voluntarily pulled her own video to "American Life," lest she appear unpatriotic. And in the wake of the Dixie Chicks' fiasco in London, artists are being careful to tread on the side of public opinion, lest they be dropped from radio playlists across the nation -- as the Chicks were from hundreds of country music stations. Even alternative bands such as Electric Six, whose song "Gay Bar" includes nuclear war references, have voluntarily pulled new videos with war imagery. The song's release date has been pushed back and a new video is being filmed.

Make no mistake, MTV is not going to become a key source of news outside the music world anytime soon. It is still all about defining what's hip and making money from advertisers trying to reach teens and college students with disposable incomes. But a controversial war involving a large portion of its demographic was something MTV News could not ignore. Fortunately, viewers were well served by all the attention.

Frances Katz is a freelance writer who has written about media and technology for The Boston Herald, Cowles Media Daily and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, Wired, Money and TV Guide.

Using War to Sell Country Music

The crimes of American country music are great and many: For every Hank Williams, there's a Conway Twitty; for every Gram Parsons, a Garth Brooks. Of course, Johnny Cash may well have been arrested for stopping to smell the flowers in Starkville, Miss. But his crimes pale in comparison to the current crop of country stars whose rejuvenated musical careers owe as much to Sept. 11 and the current war in Iraq as they do to (negligible) talent.

Consider country's latest heartthrob, Darryl Worley, who recently received an American flag from Lt. Gen. Richard Cody at a concert in Montgomery, Ala. The flag, one of many flown at the Pentagon on the first anniversary of 9/11, went to Worley in recognition of his vocal support of American soldiers and the patriotism of their families.

Now that's a mighty fine accolade, even for a self-confessed good ole boy from Hardin County, Tenn. But Worley earned it: He plumbed the depths of musical distaste by writing a weak song that calls for a war on Iraq. "Have You Forgotten?" (almost certainly not a rhetorical question) is an emotive call to arms: "I hear people saying we don't need this war/ I say there's some things worth fighting for/ What about our freedom and this piece of ground?/ We didn't get to keep 'em by backing down."

Worley then proceeds to conflate the current war in Iraq with the events of 9/11 in a chorus whose blustering rhetoric and fuzzy logic have proven popular with any number of undiscerning country music fans and right-thinking Americans: "Have you forgotten how it felt that day/ To see your homeland under fire/ And her people blown away?/ Have you forgotten when those towers fell?/ We had neighbors still inside/ Going through a living hell/ And you say we shouldn't worry 'bout Bin Laden/ Have you forgotten?"

"Have You Forgotten?" is currently riding high at number one for the second consecutive week in Billboard's Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. Never, it seems, has the phrase "number one with a bullet" been more apposite.

Worley bristles at charges that the nakedly emotive nature of the song has helped forward Bush's war agenda; he argued two weeks prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq: "I am not a politician. I never have been. It's amazing to me how a lot of people become successful at their particular job in entertainment; whether it be an actor or a dancer or a singer or whatever. And all of a sudden they become this force to be reckoned with on a political level. There is nothing in this world that I want less than that."

Fine words from a man who, at a March 26 concert and rally for families of American soldiers (part of the "Spirit of America" tour) held at Tampa's MacDill Airbase, took George W. Bush's hand and said, "Mr. President, I want you to know that I pray for you every day." Bush, happy to make banal statements on a grand scale, responded: "That is the greatest gift you could ever give a president."

Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the cheering crowd of 4,000 that "[i]f Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and the 'Star-Spangled Banner' can't get your blood boiling, you're at the wrong place." He very probably meant "pumping," but "boiling" will certainly do.

Bush, for his part, missed the show proper, citing special presidential dispensation: "One of the problems with being the president is you always end up being the last guy here," he told the crowd. Then he solemnly thanked Keith and Worley for "providing their talents in support of our efforts to make the world a more peaceful place." Yet daily doses of Bushian genuflection notwithstanding, Worley will doubtless be crushed to hear that the commander in chief is a closet Toby Keith fan. Keith scored a massive hit last year with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which asserts: "Justice will be served/ And the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American Way."

Keith's brand of angry Americanism has already wowed the Pentagon. He participated in a USO tour of Bosnia and Kosovo. He penned the song as a tribute to his father who served in the Army and died in 2001. "It was a song I was inspired to write because I lost my father six months before 9/11," he said on a recent radio show. "Nobody wrote an angry American song, and this was one. It was the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall."

Keith is witheringly disparaging of those who have only let Ol' Glory back into their hearts post 9/11: "He taught me to be a flag-waving patriot long before it was cool to wave a flag like it is now." A close friend of metaphor, Keith's live performances include a video backdrop showing a bulldog -- "Toby," natch -- urinating on a newspaper picture of Osama Bin Laden.

Recent live performances have seen the "Big Dog" look at the lot of the average "two-bedroom-cave"-dwelling Afghan, "middle-aged Middle Eastern camel-herding man" overjoyed at the downfall of the Taliban in -- keep you eyes out for it! -- the imaginatively titled "The Taliban Song."

In fact, prior to the onset of hostilities in Iraq, Keith sought to distance himself from the song's gung-ho sentiment in a clumsily formulated attempt at clearing the decks:

"Probably the biggest thing that people don't realize about my situation on, that is, I'm as anti-war as the next guy -- I really am. I'm not for ever having to go to war. If you have to go fight... If our president and our people that we've got elected... I have faith that they'll make the right decisions and if we do, then I think you've got to go in gung-ho and protect as many of us as you can."

Bush must surely have been listening.

"I'm angry about a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks," the Angry American told an appreciative Alabama audience in March. "She felt a need to tell the L.A. Times my song was ignorant and you were ignorant if you listened to it," Keith said, referring to criticisms leveled at him by the Chicks' Natalie Maines. "She was also recently on a European tour where there was an anti-war flavor and said some things about President Bush and the war. So, what do I think about her?" he asked.

Cue "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" played against a visually doctored backdrop of Maines and Saddam Hussein together. I guess you had to be there.

But spare a thought for those poor godforsaken Dixie Chicks. The popular country trio saw their latest single, "Travelin' Soldier," tumble down the country charts thanks to very public anti-Dubya comments made by Maines at a recent London concert. Maines, doubtless appalled by the resulting lack of radio airplay and the potentially damaging commercial implications of her comments, later offered not one, but two very public apologies:

"As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American."

Recently a group of outraged Dixie Chicks fans started a freedom-of-speech petition in support of Maines following the South Carolina Legislature's adoption of a resolution calling both for a public apology from Maines and a free concert for military families when the popular country trio resumes its U.S. tour in May.

Irate talk radio host Mike Gallagher has proposed an alternative concert to the Dixie Chicks' South Carolina date, with all proceeds from the concert donated to South Carolina military families. Fit to burst, he said, "Obviously, this is designed to send a message that it's not OK to run down our president during this time of war. They insulted their core audience. Country music fans are red-blooded, patriotic Americans who support our military and support our commander in chief. "

Country Music Queen Rosanne Cash has claimed that the treatment of Maines resembles something very much like the rise of McCarthyism. "It's the people who scream loudest about America and freedom who seem to be the most intolerant for people with a different point of view," she told Australia's Undercover Music. The current issue of The Onion hits the nail dead on the head in a mock opinion piece by Ellen Dunst entitled, "I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America":

"True patriots know that a price of freedom is periodic submission to the will of our leaders -- especially when the liberties granted us by the Constitution are at stake. What good is our right to free speech if our soldiers are too demoralized to defend that right, thanks to disparaging remarks made about their commander in chief by the Dixie Chicks?"

Unfortunately, truth really very often is stranger than fiction. The Dixie Chicks made it on to an online traitor list alongside other such showbiz luminaries as Madonna, Mos Def and Sheryl Crow, to name but a few of the "flaky" celebs who fall foul of the Web site's guiding principle: "If you do not support our president's decisions you are a TRAITOR to our country!"

A patriot list is also provided in the interest of balance, which very handily comes replete with a useful dictionary definition of the "P" word for those not quite certain of the increasingly tainted word's meaning ("one who loves his country, and zealously supports its authority," it reads). José Maria Asnar, 54, from Madrid, Spain has signed up, but Darryl and Toby are noticeable by their absence.

Still further bad news followed the hapless Chicks with the announcement that Al Gore had taken up the freedom-of-speech cudgels on their behalf. Speaking recently to an audience of college students in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Gore said, "They were made to feel un-American and risked economic retaliation because of what was said. Our democracy has taken a hit. Our best protection is free and open debate."

Yet where Maine's timid anti-Bush outburst resulted in a very public slapdown from the media and country radio programmers alike, Worley and Toby Keith have dripped with praise and country music-award nominations as a result of their twangin' post-9/11 triumphalism. Not only did Keith record the fastest-selling record of his career to date, he scooped up eight Academy of Country Music Award nominations. Worley, for his part, bagged a best New Male Vocalist nomination. And according to his record label, Dreamworks, the song is "scaling the charts faster than any single in recent memory. Obviously, Darryl has hit a nerve that strikes to the core of this country's conscious."

The song has certainly hit a very obvious emotive nerve. Whether it strikes to the core of the American conscious is another thing. One can only wonder what the good folks of Basra and Baghdad would think of Worley and Keith's chest-beating invocations to war. That, though, was probably of little concern to Worley when he picked up his USO Merit Award at the Metropolitan Washington USO black-tie dinner event April 9. Previous recipients include Liz Taylor, Steven Spielberg and Bob Hope.

The "Spirit of America" has truly been reawakened. Unfortunately it is the paranoid America of McCarthy's House on Un-American Activities -- simply substitute Hanns Eisler and Pete Seeger with Natalie Maines or even Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (who has recently taken to impaling a mask of President Bush on a microphone stand at recent concerts). In that context, red-blooded patriots Keith and Worley may well be the Elia Kazan Lites of their generation.

Richard Perle, one of the chief architects of the Bush administration and former president of the defense policy board, famously said, "If we let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now." Thankfully, they'll know whom to call.

The likes of Rosanne Cash and Maines aside (it's taken almost as a given that John Cougar and Steve Earle, et. al., act as a liberal counterpoint to the worst country music political excesses), dissenting country voices have been relatively few and far between to date. ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings allegedly had Keith dropped from last year's 4th of July TV special, although ABC cited Keith's existing concert engagements as the real reason for his no-show.

"I find it interesting that he's not from the U.S.," Keith said of Jennings at the time (Jennings is Canadian). "I bet Dan Rather'd let me do it on his special" he huffed. That's the spirit, Toby: Play the nationality card.

As is so often the case in these things, the last word must go to Toby "Big Dog" Keith: "Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye / Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July."

Repeat to fade.

William MacDougall lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He is a regular contributor to a number of political publications and Web sites, including Counterpunch, Red Pepper and Z Magazine.

TV News Gets Freaky

The “voice” of television news is expected to be more conversational and less formal than newspaper writing. But lately, as cable news organizations try to fix what ain’t broken, that voice is becoming more and more wince-inducing.

Back in October, a CNN Headline News producer sent an internal e-mail to the writing staff that read: "In an effort to be sure we are as cutting-edge as possible with our on-screen persona, please refer to this slang dictionary when looking for just the right phrase." Words such as “freak” (sex), “fly” (sexually attractive), “jimmy cap” (condom), and “ill” (to act inappropriately) followed.

The e-mail instructed the writers to “use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekos” -- that is, the graphics that appear on the overcrowded, seizure-inducing Headline News screen.

The revelation of this memo gave humorists a nice little shot in the arm. James Earl Jones intoning "This is CNN, beeyotch" -- this stuff writes itself!

But by the time it had come to light, AOL-Time Warner's news war-horse was already wedging terms like "bling bling" into its crawl. This e-mail merely revealed that the man behind the curtain has a glossary.

CNN, with its average viewer age of 62, was no doubt responding to the belief floating around out there that coveted younger audiences, the 18- to 34-year-olds who command the highest ad rates, get their news from hipper television sources, including comedians like David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Tina Fey. Even if that were true, it's not like those three are peppering their jokes with hip-hop lingo; when was the last time you heard Letterman complain about Saddam being all up in our grill?

Slang is an ever-changing organism, which makes it impossible to keep a dictionary current or relevant; wouldn't squeezing obsolete slang into the "dekos" completely undermine the purpose of using it to sound hip? The claim that slang "modernizes" a newscast only makes sense if they are replacing old slang with new, but it's not like Judy Woodruff has been calling Wolf Blitzer “Daddio” all these years.

And it's just as cynical to believe that everyone in a certain age group, or any other group, is hip to certain (or any) slang as it is to believe that a target 20-year-old would flip by, see that "jimmy cap" has been shoehorned into CNN's crawl, not recognize that she's being pandered to or having her culture exploited, and lock in CNN with "favorite channel" status, saying to herself, "Finally, news that speaks to me."

Or maybe that should be "Finally, news, speaking to me," because CNN fronting with the slang is just one change in the language of TV news. Tune in to CNN, Fox News and occasionally even the broadcast networks, and you'll hear elliptical, participle-filled sentence fragments like these, recently uttered by Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith: "Meantime, the Navy, looking for another suitable training location, the Navy secretary saying it will be tough but not impossible. The Navy using Vieques for the past 60 years."

Or this bit of verblessness, from NBC's Andrea Mitchell: "Gary Condit today, the first sighting in weeks."

Or these shards, from CNN's John King: "Those negotiations continuing. Mr. Bush speaking to reporters earlier today. Suddenly optimistic."

This phenomenon was explored by the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where it was somewhat mistakenly called "The Vanishing Verb" (the verbs are usually there, they're just tense-less), and, more recently, in The New York Times. Smith of Fox News calls it "people-speak." He told the NewsHour's Terence Smith, "I try to talk like I speak when I'm yakking with my buddies."

But this really isn't the way people talk in conversation, casual or otherwise, unless you go around saying things like "Me, suddenly stuffy. A cold today. Buying cough drops."

This flashy, spliced speech has also been implemented to save valuable time (of course, "Those negotiations continue" is actually shorter than "Those negotiations continuing"). Even if it does occasionally shave a couple of syllables off a sentence, is that really necessary? Is there really so much more to cram into a newscast than there used to be (when 24-hour news channels didn't exist) that words need to be squeezed out of sentences?

Judging from the numbing repetition, examination of minutiae, and parade of "usual suspect" pundits, the biggest problem the 24-hour cable news channels seem to have isn't making time, but filling up the time.

The addition of hip-hop slang and "people-speak" are two misguided "solutions" to the same imagined "problem": that the “on-screen persona” of TV news has to be changed to accommodate the supposed throngs of young people who aren't interested in, or can't focus on, straightforward information, and who need to be lured in by choppy, faux-chummy incomplete sentences and forced, contrived lingo -- like trying to focus and entertain an infant by shaking a shiny, jangly set of keys in its face. But if the result is the loss of credibility with younger viewers and the repulsion of older viewers, who is left to tune in?

"It's definitely not your mom's Headline News anymore," Headline News chief Rolando Santos told the San Francisco Chronicle about his revamped product (ironically using a stale cliché in the process). But has anyone in this focus group-crazy business even asked if people thought the news sounded too "old-fashioned" before? What makes the ratings go up on cable news channels is a big juicy story, not how chatty or “down” the middle-aged, overly-coiffed anchors sound. When the story goes away, so do the ratings. That proves that people tune in to 24-hour news channels when they are looking for information.

It seems odd, then, that news, just news, is becoming harder to find on cable. Cable channels, underestimating the very viewers they’re trying to attract, are coming off like that desperate high school teacher who tried in vain to be "cool."

Karen Lurie is a writer living in New York City.

One Night in Baghdad

As we are about to wade into the murky waters of Iraq: The Sequel, the HBO film Live From Baghdad comes to us taped from Morocco. Starring Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter, Live From Baghdad chronicles the adventures of a group of CNN journalists reporting from Baghdad in 1990-1991 as Desert Shield morphed into Desert Storm. 

Unlike other movies such as "Salvador"," Cry Freedom" and "All The President’s Men", in which journalists serve as a catalyst to tell The Real Story (CIA involvement in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, and Watergate, respectively), Live From Baghdad barely delves into the roots of the Iraqi-American conflict at all. Here, the journalists are the story.

CNN, in its own review of the film, was kind enough to make a parenthetical note of the fact that both HBO and CNN are owned by the same parent company, AOL Time Warner. It’s hard to critique such a coincidence without dipping into Cold War era terminology (words like “propaganda” come to mind), but it’s worth pointing out that Live From Baghdad is not a story about the Gulf War, or even about covering the Gulf War. It is, specifically, about CNN’s triumph over other news outlets in getting the midnight scoop on the first night of bombing over Baghdad on Jan. 16, 1991.

In the film we see old footage of other network anchors, including Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings, congratulating CNN -- “once known as ‘the little network that could’” -- for its bravado. We see war correspondent Peter Arnett (Bruce McGill) leaning against the wall in a hotel corridor, beer in hand, calling out to other journalists as they scurry to catch the first flight out (“Oh, look at ‘em run. Hurry!”). We see producer Robert Wiener (Keaton) phoning Atlanta after the night is over, where he’s told that he “can rest assured that [he’s] the envy of every journalist in the world.”

That much is probably fair. Prior to the Gulf War, the idea of a round-the-clock news network was considered about as thrilling as the Weather Channel. Desert Shield, and its slightly more dramatic following, Desert Storm, did, in fact, propel CNN into its current Major Player status. Remember when you could only get world news for half an hour each night on one of the three major networks? Yeah, me neither.

Where things get cloudy is in the subsequent insinuation that CNN’s reporting of one chaotic night was synonymous with “getting the story,” however that may be defined. Many reporters have commented on the control, by both the Americans and the Iraqis, over what could and could not be photographed and described on international news during the Gulf War. The film’s implication that CNN’s reporting of one night of bombing in Baghdad is synonymous with free-wheeling, in-depth coverage of the Iraqi-American conflict in general is, at very best, misleading.

Post-Vietnam censorship of war coverage has been a topic of interest for more than two decades. American reporting from Vietnam is widely held responsible for the popular resistance to the war; allowing reporters unlimited access to battle scenes was a mistake that President Reagan and subsequent administrations weren’t willing to make twice. The plot of "Good Morning Vietnam" centered around just this issue: the conflict between a DJ’s insistence on reporting war casualties to American GIs stationed abroad, and his superiors’ resolve to stop him lest he damage morale.

Peter Arnett himself has talked at length about the Pentagon’s efforts to keep disturbing battle images, particularly of dead Americans, from filtering back home to American TV screens. “The Pentagon basically doesn’t want anyone to see the first brutal elements of war,” he said during a 1991 speech at Stanford University. “In Desert Storm, for example, there were few if any pictures transmitted during the fighting of either dead or wounded GIs and few of the thousands of dead Iraqis. It’s not easy to find a picture of any of those. Accounts of the relatively few combat engagements fought by the Allied side on the ground were delayed by elaborate censorship schemes.”

This was offset, or perhaps enhanced, by Iraqis’ censorship over coverage of the Iraqi resistance movement. “There was no way in Baghdad,” said Arnett, “even if I believed it could I talk about the bravery of the Iraqis. I knew there were real restrictions on the kind of words that I could use.”

What Live From Baghdad did capture -- to the exclusion of almost all else -- is the frenetic pace of American-style television journalism. None of the correspondents are portrayed as having any particular interest in the conflict itself (aside from one shot of CNN producer Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter) shoving a copy of Republic of Fear in her luggage), much less an interest in the Middle East, save for its Indiana Jones thrill factor. What they do love is war. Any war. “I cried when that goddamn war ended,” says McGill-as-Arnett, speaking about Vietnam.

It’d be funny, if it weren’t so true. American journalists, as author Stephen Hess has noted, are frequently thrown blind into a conflict and expected to pick up the particulars as they go along. This sort of commando-style journalism gives rise to hot spot reporting by “parachutists” who focus on “mayhem, bombings, gun battles, mortar attacks, and civil strife” at the expense of background and analysis.

War, in such an environment, ceases to be a vehicle of foreign policy, ceases to have any relationship with history, international trade, or human rights. What it does become is an event that can make or break a journalist’s career. Rather than gloss over or apologize for this sad fact, Live From Baghdad revels in it. As the heroic Keaton-as-Wiener informs Atlanta, “I’m gonna stay. I’m gonna ride it out. This is my walk on the moon.”

To the real Wiener’s credit, his book (on which the film was based) contains some thoughtful political criticism of American foreign policy, of Iraq, of censorship, and of war itself. The film version apparently wrote all this off as boring and pedantic, unable to compete with the wham-bang image of Keaton being blasted across his hotel room in the middle of a bombing.

The most compelling thing about Live From Baghdad, unfortunately relegated to a subplot, is the relationship between Wiener and Iraq’s Minister of Information, Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet). Although both characters jokingly acknowledge that they are using each other, just what, exactly, the Iraqis are getting from the exchange is never fully explored. Viewers are left with the impression that their only job is to censor television footage, as though they had nothing to gain from CNN’s access to Pentagon officials and the American military in Saudi Arabia. Yet anyone who remembers the Gulf War will remember the notion that “Saddam could be watching this” loomed large and colored all discussions, all arguments, over what should and should not be censored during wartime.

But Saddam Hussein wasn’t the only one watching CNN. Following the Gulf War, CNN -- and, later, Al Jazeera -- emerged as potent influences in Arab countries. Satellite television’s disrespect of national borders renders it a powerful tool indeed.

“A dynamic new Arab world has emerged,” wrote Fatema Mernissi in "Islam and Democracy", “in which constant mobility in both mental and physical space, juggling with divergent opinions, and selecting from different cultures have been instinctively adopted by our youth as techniques for survival. The master educators of this new Arab world, which is still classified by the disoriented International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as ‘illiteracy-ridden,’ are neither the religious teachers at mosques nor the instructors at state schools and universities but the designers of satellite TV programs.”

As we move into the next phase of the American conflict with Iraq, it’s useful to reflect on the changes that have occurred in the media over the past 10 years. Al Jazeera and satellite dishes have put a dent in Arab regimes’ attempts to control information, and the DIY anarchy of the Internet has served as counterweight to American media monopolies.

Even in Iraq, perhaps the least wired nation on the planet, reporters got around UN sanctions prohibiting computers by feeding questions to Baghdad via satellite phone; news from the 1998 bombing was dictated to a London office using U.S. technology for the benefit of 12,000 online chat participants worldwide. This is just one of many examples in which cobbled-together technology can challenge censorship without depending on major news networks like CNN, who are themselves dependent on remaining in the good graces of both their host country and their advertisers back home.

“Manufacturing one’s identity,” writes Mernissi, “previously the monopoly of ruthless military states which sent a whole generation of Arabs into prisons, is now the privilege of any youth who has access to a cybercafe.”

“You own this war,” Wiener is told in Live From Baghdad, a sentiment that already seems dated. If the medium is to become the message, let it be for its potential to undermine the idea that any one person can own a story, that any one news organization -- or president, or dictator -- can control the flood of information coming in and out of a war zone.

Technology’s ability to override national borders, despite the frustrated efforts of even the most diligent information ministers and the most stringent sanctions policies, provides all kinds of possibilities for networking between activists, policymakers, writers, exiles and dissidents.

CNN’s 1991 coverage of Baghdad is perhaps an interesting place to mark the beginning of this revolution, but we should be assured that the bravery of a handful of journalists is already matched -- if not outdone -- by the efforts of hostages with cell phones, refugees with radios, and students in Internet cafes throughout the world. All wars from here on out will belong to them. And if improved communication can avoid those wars altogether, that, too, will be their victory.

Laura Fokkena‘s essay, “Watching Them Grow Up,” appeared in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad (Seal Press, 2002). She currently lives in Boston. Other PopPolitics articles can be found here.

American Style Justice

A lusty sense of vengefulness is hanging over America. Simply put: We're ready to kill.

We're ready to kill accused sniper John Allen Muhammad. And, while we're at it, we'll kill his teenage companion and apparent co-conspirator, John Lee Malvo, too. In fact, we're ready to do much more than kill: We want to make them suffer first. Just tune into talk radio or turn on the TV and you'll hear numerous suggestions for retaliation -- from both the legal "experts" and the public -- that essentially boil down to this: Torture them, then leave the bodies for the wolves.

The sniper shootings were crimes of extraordinary brutality. Not only were the attacks vicious beyond comprehension, but the perpetrators succeeded in terrorizing an entire region. But still the question remains: What's behind our quest for primordial revenge?

Following an embarrassing struggle among the various jurisdictions involved, Attorney General John Ashcroft has now awarded Virginia the bragging rights for the first trial -- despite the fact that Maryland would seem the more logical choice since more of the shootings happened there. But Maryland, like the federal government and many other states, doesn't permit the execution of killers who were minors at the time of their crimes. This means 17-year-old Malvo would not be subject to the death penalty, and Ashcroft wasn't about to let that happen. (Never mind that the only countries in the world, aside from the United States, that have used the death penalty against juveniles since 1985 are Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. At least Saddam Hussein is on our side.)

Besides, Maryland has a troubling history of acting slowly and with deliberation in applying the death penalty -- you know, all that due process stuff. Virginia, on the other hand -- which proudly sports the second highest kill rate in the country, second only to George W. Bush's Texas -- has the process streamlined to a tee; its motto could be, "Vengeance delayed is vengeance denied."

Criminal law is supposed to be about justice, not revenge. As Francis Bacon said, "Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more a man's nature runs to, the more ought law weed it out." Thus, even when authorizing the use of the death penalty, judges and legislatures traditionally have been careful to justify its use on other grounds, such as the notion that capital punishment deters violent crime (no matter that this has been discredited). For the most part, however, they don't bother with such excuses today. We seem to have reached the point where revenge is considered justification enough to kill -- no additional gloss needed.

Particularly troubling is how exclusively American a phenomenon it is. Among Western democracies, the United States stands alone in its use of the death penalty for myriad crimes, though that wasn't always the case. A few hundred years ago, for example, the common law in England authorized the death penalty for more than 200 crimes, many of them quite minor. It was possible for a starving man to be sentenced to death for stealing food. But the law in Great Britain grew up. Over the years, capital punishment was dropped for one crime after another, until it was finally abolished for murder in 1965. (It remained on the books solely for military wartime offenses until 1998, though the last execution there was in 1964.)

For a while, the United States kept pace, and there was every reason to believe it would soon follow suit in abolishing the practice. The execution rate dropped drastically in the 1960s, due in part to various legal challenges and lack of public support, and an unofficial 10-year moratorium on executions began in 1967. In 1972, the Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia, voided all existing state death penalty statutes, thus suspending the death penalty.

But in 1976 capital punishment came roaring back to life, which raises the question: Why does America cling so tenaciously to the death penalty when Europe so strongly opposes it? Not only will no member of the European Union extradite a suspect to the United States who could potentially face the death penalty, but Germany, consistent with the mandates of its constitution, has gone so far as to refuse to even provide evidence to U.S. authorities for use in the prosecution of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, because the death penalty is being sought in his case. Similar policies have been adopted by many non-European nations.

There are many factors that play into America's infatuation with capital vengeance. Commonly mentioned suspects include Hollywood's romanticized depiction of violent retribution as part of our Wild West heritage, the culture of violence that has grown up around our national love affair with firearms, and the highly sensational media coverage given to high-profile crimes. Yet the biggest reason for the success of the death penalty may be good old-fashioned racism. There is little doubt that if this were a more racially homogeneous country, capital punishment would have gone the way of the dodo bird 30 years ago.

No one with knowledge on the subject can deny that race has played a role in the application of capital punishment: Study after study has proven its disproportionate use against minorities. And, yes, many white people have also been executed. But that doesn't change the fact that the death penalty remains predominately something that whites impose on blacks.

The sniper case is the exception. The death penalty, in all probability, would be just as much in play if the suspects were white. But that's a testament to how awful the crimes were and the public outcry that resulted, not to the fairness of the system. In the less sensational murder cases, it's often a different story.

Over the years, support for capital punishment proved to be the perfect stealth technique for exploiting racial fears for political gain. Sometimes the racial elephant in the room is painfully obvious, like when a political advertisement flashes the mugshot of a black offender on the screen at the same moment the candidate pledges to vigorously support the death penalty. At other times the pitch is more subtle. But when capital punishment becomes one of the biggest issues in a campaign, you can take it to the bank that it's race that's really being discussed.

As the death penalty's popularity soared throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many of the poll-hugging "New Democrats" jumped onto the band wagon, leaving very few political leaders willing to oppose the practice. Given this, it's not surprising that support for capital punishment of convicted murderers remains high in this country (72 percent are in favor, according to Gallup polls) despite the fact that more than 100 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.

The sniper case is, unfortunately, likely to make it even more popular. This is just the sort of case death penalty enthusiasts live for. Never mind that the extreme facts serve to distort the debate, which in turn can distort the law that will apply in future, less egregious cases.

Last month, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, declined to hear a capital murder case involving a death row inmate who was 17 when he committed the crime. Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the dissenters, wrote that the use of the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds "is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."

After the arrest of Malvo, voices against the death penalty have been drowned out by those clamoring to put the snipers to death, age be damned. Clearly the United States is destined to remain a world leader when it comes to capital punishment. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether that's an honor we really want.

Steven C. Day, an attorney in Wichita, Kansas, is a contributing writer to PopPolitics.com.

Reflecting on Black Men as Snipers

The recent sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area made for a lot of TV watching. It wasn't because the story was always riveting or the news was always breaking. In fact, more often than not, the news briefings held by Police Chief Charles A. Moose of Montgomery County, Md., were uninformative. 

And yet, even as the shooters' range expanded to other jurisdictions and even as the timing of attacks was variable, Moose would, every few hours, make his way to the microphone at the Montgomery "command center," surrounded by reporters, camera crews, support staff and law enforcement types, to tell us what we already knew: The killer was still at large. The whole business had become "personal." Someone had seen a white van or a white box truck, somewhere.

As October wore on, and frightened locals were increasingly testy concerning what the cops did or didn't know, how they were handling the case, and what they were saying publicly, or leaking or refusing to leak to the camped-out press, Moose kept on. Now, in hindsight, the reasons for his cryptic tactics seem multiple and complex. You know that he was communicating more or less directly with the killer ("The person you called could not hear everything you said; the audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand") and responding to notes left at crime scenes ("Our word is our bond"). 

Exactly what Moose knew or when he knew it may never become completely known, but during those difficult 23 days, the emotional toll on him was visible daily. As he now describes the strategy, post-suspects-capture, "I'll talk to the devil himself to keep another person alive."

He wasn't the only one doing a lot of talking, of course. Television news shows trotted out legions of "profilers," professional, retired, amateur and increasingly annoying, lining up on TV and in print to tell everyone how to imagine the killer. Their occupations were varied -- legal correspondents, cable news hosts, professors, reporters, columnists, former lawyers, current lawyers, terrorism experts, former employees of the FBI, former cops and, in one sensational instance, even a former serial killer: David Berkowitz, interviewed by the Fox News Channel's ever intrepid, ever misguided Rita Cosby.

For all the (ratings-bumping) brouhaha that greeted Cosby's ostensible coup, the Son of Sam's insights were much like everyone else's -- the killer was shooting from a distance, he was moving about, he was angry. For all the lack of available information, these authorities and specialists dutifully wore their suits, appeared against book-lined backdrops or in maps-and-graphics-equipped studios, to proclaim what everyone knew, or worse, what they had no substantive grounds for asserting: The killer was white, male, of a certain age and station. He was taunting police, he wanted to get caught. He was ingenious, he was insane. He was a terrorist, an expert sniper, an expert first-person video game player, indicated because he used that odious and supremely unimaginative phrase, "I am god."

A few "news" shows included discussions of the "news" coverage. Was the coverage excessive and sensational? Was it fear-mongering? Ratings-mongering? Was it superseding other news? Was all this profiling bogus? (Recall how many times you heard someone set up his -- and it was mostly "his" -- opinion by saying, "Well, I don't have all the facts, but ...")

In most areas around the United States, the story was awful and upsetting -- and not the only news. Still, the cable news stations took it up as if it was, deploying expensive crosshairs graphics, interrupting themselves to "break" news that wasn't new. For Donahue, Jerry Nachman, Connie Chung, Bill O'Reilly, Dan Abrams, Geraldo, John Walsh, Chris Matthews, et. al., it was the story of the minute for almost a month, and that meant that the teams assembled beneath the Montgomery tents came from all over.

However, in and around D.C., where I live, the story was (and remains) local news, intensely. The wall-to-wallness was unavoidable. Morning to night, Sniper TV ruled. Schools closed in Virginia, interviewees explained why they were staying home or going to the mall, traffic stopped for hours following an attack, and the secret military high-tech surveillance plane was flying around, somewhere, sometime, maybe. And no matter where the violence and grief spread, Chief Moose came before the mic, to read his statements and (maybe) take questions. Politely, because, as he instructed one journalist, his parents raised him that way.

And then, shortly after midnight, on Thursday, Oct. 24, the news channels went nuts with "Breaking News" banners, splitting their screens and their experts' opinions across chopper shots of a backyard in Tacoma, Wash., and a liquor store in Montgomery, Ala. 

Suddenly, there was a license plate, then names and descriptions: John Allen Muhammad, a 41-year-old Gulf War Army veteran with a couple of ex-wives and several relatives who were all too ready to talk to Larry and Katie and Greta; John Lee Malvo, variously termed Muhammad's "stepson," his "teenage sidekick," or "a 17-year-old Jamaican immigrant with a sketchy past." He left his fingerprint on a gun-lovers' magazine in Alabama, which led ATF, FBI and local police investigators directly to the pair, as soon as one of them phoned the task force and told them about "Montgomery."

Suddenly, there were arrests at a truck stop in Maryland, a "courageous" truck driver, and ongoing arguments about who gets to prosecute first; as Montgomery (Ala.) Police Chief John Wilson put it, in a much-repeated sound bite, "We're going to make an example of somebody." 

Suddenly, there was a Bushmaster rifle and a blue Caprice with a hole cut in the trunk, a grim "killing machine." There were court reporter sketches, perp walks and home videos of martial arts classes.

Suddenly, there were faces -- black faces.

This last bit came as something of a surprise, especially if you'd been even half-listening to all the experts who were so sure about what to expect and presume of serial killers. But the surprise, disturbing and pause-giving as it might be, hasn't exactly stopped the experts from yapping. 

After all, now there are more stories to put together and tell: unhappy childhoods and military service records to dig up; last visits and ominous conversations to recall (Muhammad's six-months-ago question to an "old Army friend": "Can you imagine the damage you could do if you could shoot with a silencer?"); distressing anecdotes to relate (Malvo's diet of crackers and honey, and his "scared" behavior). And on Saturday, another arrest of another "material witness," Nathaniel Osbourne, 26-year-old co-owner of the Caprice, whose picture appears on TV screens, seemingly cut off from a snapshot that once included someone else.

Presently, all terms and assumptions have changed. Most of the stories emerging have to do with this unexpected turn, this unexpected blackness.

Item: One note from the sniper closed with five stars. Says Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "This case hardly lacks for bizarre elements. Who would have thought that the ... suspect's notes would reference a 'duck in the noose' fairy tale or a Jamaican band called the Five Stars?"

Item: Muhammad converted to Islam in 1985. "This is a politically incorrect thing to say," announced "Terrorism Expert" Steve Emerson on The Abrams Report (Oct. 24), "but the bottom line is, [for] the devout Muslim who believes in taking action in jihad, it's a short line for them to go into carrying out violence."

He added, not quite as an afterthought, "Again, we don't know what motivated this particular shooter."

Item: Muhammad may or may not have been sympathetic to the 9/11 hijackers, and reportedly worked "security" at the Million Man March. This last bit has been denied by Louis Farrakhan, who adds that if Muhammad is convicted of murder, he'll be kicked out of the Nation. CNN reports: "Farrakhan noted that Oklahoma City bomber 'Timothy McVeigh confessed that he was a Christian, but nobody blames the church for his misconduct.'"

Item: "I am god" now doesn't designate video game prowess, but, reported Fox News Channel (for a minute), it may refer to a belief held by members of the Five PercentNation (also here). According to the Associated Press (Oct. 27), Robert Walker, "a consultant based in Columbia, S.C., who helps police identify gangs" observes of this coincidence: "I'm not saying he's a Five Percenter. I don't know that. Only that 'I am God' is something a Five Percenter might say. All black men who are followers and members of the Five Percenters refer to themselves as God and will even refer to someone else who is a Five Percenter as a God also."

Item: Geraldo and others are scrambling to make their tabloid points, loudly. The Oct. 27 edition of At Large With Geraldo Rivera led with the reporter's announcement that this "angry loser" (Geraldo is colorful, as always) is linked with human smuggling. In April 2001, it comes out, Muhammad was detained by immigration inspectors at the Miami International Airport, who suspected him of trying to smuggle two undocumented Jamaican women into the country.

Item: On Saturday, Oct. 26, Malvo, handcuffed in his holding cell, made an awkward effort to climb out through the ceiling. There wasn't a chance he might have made it, but responses from Virginia's (painfully named) Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and still more "experts" were immediate and harsh. Keep him in shackles, in waist chains and leg braces. And, most emphatically, make sure he gets tried in Virginia, where he can be tried as an adult and eligible for the death penalty. So that someone, somewhere, can "make an example of somebody."

Looking back on the past month and looking forward to the feeding frenzy that the court cases will inspire, journalists persist. Time magazine has called on Vietnam War veteran, essayist, and novelist Tim O'Brien (Going After Cacciato) to ponder "the difficult task facing soldiers returning to society."

His insights are at once predictable and weighty. In war, he notes, "The capacity that you could do terrible things is awakened." It's difficult to come back to the world, to a civilian life. At the same time, O'Brien indicts the U.S. media and its consumers: "I was disgusted to see this country transfixed by a sniper while a war's being planned in Iraq," he writes. People in "the rest of the world ... could be dying by the thousands and we'll go on with our business with no fear or personal stake. I never fail to be stunned by our appetite for atrocity and violence."

As if to illustrate (or feed) same, this past weekend's TV (Oct. 25-27) has been rife with efforts to describe, reframe and sensationalize the sniper story, not to mention to justify the previous attention paid to all those so-wrong experts. In addition to underlining (and amplifying) the obvious drama of the case, these shows are also explaining their own existence on the scene(s). The sniper mounted "an attack on the fabric of life," says reporter Jean Meserve, on CNN's Manhunt: Cracking the Case (Oct. 27), while she stands on a street in the "D.C. metropolitan area," the same area where so many D.C.-based reporters live.

Manhunt goes on to trace events: The first day's shooting spree, the ensuing tensions and tactics, the sites of attack, the daily reports by Chief Moose (these images enhanced to grainy digital close-ups to enhance horror-effects, say, when he reads from the postscript, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time"), the amassing media coverage. 

At its peak, reports CNN, the ratings for networks covering the story "more than tripled," helped along, no doubt, by the startling cross-hairs logos and galvanizing theme music. "Marketing murder or serving a public need?" asks the reporter. "In fact, it was both." In fact.

As might be expected, given his reputation, his man-in-action opening credits graphics, and his penchant for reporting on all-things-gigantic-that-will-enhance-himself, Rivera's show Oct. 27 obscures fact in favor of high emotion and low tabloidism (his set for the past couple of days includes a mock-up of the "killing machine," a 1990 Caprice his "expert" has outfitted to resemble that of the killers).

First, Rivera beats down any effort by his guest, John Mills, Muhammad's lawyer during a custody case in 1999, to suggest that Muhammad's (alleged) violence may have been long in the making, a function of building frustrations. Geraldo wonders why Mills wants to probe into the past (even though Geraldo has, again, invited him onto the show). Mills attempts to state his case: "It's important to understand what happened, in order to prevent this from happening in the future." 

Rivera rejects that. Mills tries again, noting that the talking-head-guest-psychologists Robert Butterworth and Cyril Wecht are diagnosing a man they've never met (they're commenting on Muhammad's sympathy for the 9/11 terrorists, while the man who knew him then, Mills, observes, "He wanted to see his kids"). Rivera scoffs. "There are 13 bodies here, 10 of 'em dead. Maybe you're the oddball here, maybe you're the one who's wrong."

Not one to stop when he's (even nominally) ahead, Rivera moves on to the next segment: Former prosecutor Wendy Murphy declares, "The death penalty isn't enough. We want them to suffer more ... How else do we vindicate the interests of the entire region?" At Rivera's (seeming) invitation, attorney Geoffrey Feiger attempts to inject sanity into the proceedings, suggesting that this "thirst for blood ... speaks volumes about this country. It makes us as uncivilized as [the killers]." Yet again, Rivera passes judgment: Muhammad and Malvo, driven by their "diabolical chemistry," deserve to die. So much for due process.

None of this is to say that the murders are not heinous or the murderers not horrific. The process of media story-making, however, is hardly transparent. 

When, also on Oct. 27, Greta Van Susteren interviews Chief Moose and his wife, Sandy Herman-Moose, the focus is not on lust for punishment, sensational violence or perpetual horrors. Moose, humble, gracious and looking rested at long last, focuses instead on his "pride" in the cooperation between departments and individuals, the ongoing mourning of survivors' families, and the role of the media in the investigation (and still, he doesn't blame or make noise, only notes, quietly, his view of what happened). Moose is no longer in charge, since prosecutors in Virginia, Maryland and Alabama have jumped on the self-promotional bandwagon. And the case looks increasingly hysterical and sad.

A decent and now much respected man, Moose's prominence in this lengthy "show" -- not to mention his enigmatic messages to the sniper ("You have asked us to say, 'We have caught the sniper, like a duck in a noose'") and brusque behavior with reporters -- now appear to have been motivated by some knowledge that he could not disclose at the time.

Pete Hamill speculates in the New York Daily News (Oct. 25), that this knowledge had to do with the killer's identity; that is, his race. Hamill writes that Moose's "anguish seemed to intensify as communications were opened with the killers. Almost certainly this was because he knew they were black. He is clearly a decent, tough, disciplined black man, an American before he is anything else. But he also must have known what my friend knew yesterday: Black people didn't need this. He almost certainly knew one other large truth: Race had nothing to do with it."

But of course, race has everything to do with it. No one has to say it to make it so. 

Still, several major newspapers (among them, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun) have run stories on reactions of "black community" members to the news that the suspects are black. Black call-in radio shows (like Tom Joyner's) were inundated with responses, as was BET.com (read the messages here); Tavis Smiley plans to do a show on the subject, and it's a good bet that Ed Gordon will do so as well. (Johnny Cochran, however, has already begged off the case, telling Donahue that he felt "fear" when in D.C. during the period of the attacks, so he's no longer objective.)

This is a discussion that "white community" members will never need to have. They don't feel that a Timothy McVeigh, an Eric Harris, or a Ted Bundy represents them, that others will perceive them differently because someone of their race commits atrocities. Rather, white folks tend to see these criminals as "evil," deviant or otherwise not like them. 

To be sure, most black folks will not identify with a Muhammad or a Malvo, but fear being identified with them. Amid all the fears available out there, this is one fear that white people in the United States won't need to confront.

Cynthia Fuchs is an associate professor of English, African American studies and film and media studies at George Mason University.

Burning Our Cultural Bridges

Sometimes we’re just dumb.

Consider, for instance, the subject of visas. One of our goals in the war against terrorism is to “win the hearts and minds” of the “Arab street” and Muslims around the world. In other words, try to make them hate us a little less and perhaps even engender something akin to mutual respect. Then, hopefully, less of their young people will grow up wanting to achieve martyrdom by killing Americans.

So how do we go about this process of trying to ingratiate ourselves to young Muslims? Why, by insulting their cultural heroes, of course.

Take the shabby way our government treated Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, widely viewed as one of the greatest living filmmakers. Kiarostami was unable to attend the premier of his new movie, Ten, at the New York Film Festival, which began in late Sept., because he couldn’t get a visa to enter the U.S. in time.

His story is far from unique. Scores of artists and pop performers have fallen into this quagmire.

The difficulty grows out of the U.S. Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act, signed into law by the president May 14. Under the act (and related regulations created by the Bush administration), citizens of nations designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” -- currently Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Cuba -- are required to go through lengthy FBI and CIA background checks before receiving visas to enter the country. Citizens from 26 other undisclosed (but thought to be mostly Islamic) countries are subjected to a shorter mandatory waiting period.

Add to this the intensified scrutiny all visa applications are receiving in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and you have an obvious recipe for delay. The end result is that visas that once were issued in a few weeks can now take up to six months.

The idea, of course, is to prevent terrorists from entering the country, plainly a laudable goal. But the 62-year-old Kiarostami would seem an unlikely terrorist threat: An award-winning writer and director of 30 films, he has visited the U.S. seven times in the last 10 years. His 1997 film, Taste of Cherry, was the Palme D'Or winner at Cannes, and his latest film explores the lives of Iranian women living under an oppressive system. There was no indication he ever tried to blow up anything -- except, perhaps, a few cultural stereotypes.

And the snub wasn’t an oversight. Ines Aslan, a spokeswoman for the New York Film Festival, said festival organizers and others tried “very, very hard” to prevail on officials at the U.S. Embassy in Paris to make an exception for Kiarostami. Similar exceptions have been allowed in the past. But they hit a brick wall.

“It wasn’t that they could not make an exception,” she said. “It was that they did not choose to. It is very sad.”

Not surprisingly, this news wasn’t received well abroad. Jack Lang, a former French minister of education and culture, called it “intellectual isolationism and ... contempt for other cultures.” Aki Kaurismaki, a film director from Finland, boycotted the New York festival in protest. “If international cultural exchange is prevented,” he mused, “what is left? The exchange of arms?”

Other cultural figures who have been caught in the U.S. visa squeeze include Iranian pop diva Googoosh, who was forced to cancel a long scheduled concert, and 22 Cuban musicians prevented from attending the Latin Grammys; one of them, jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, won the Grammy for pop instrumental album.

One suspects that George W. Bush is no great lover of foreign language films, Persian pop music and Latin jazz. It probably doesn’t break his heart that cultural exchange, involving these and other art forms, has been hindered by the war on terrorism. But before he writes the whole thing off as soft-headed intellectual nonsense, he might want to talk to Norman Pattiz.

Pattiz is the creator of Radio Sawa, the U.S. government-sponsored Arabic-language broadcasting service. Broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week since its debut in March 2002, Radio Sawa -- which means “Radio Together” in Arabic -- has been hugely successful in attracting listeners in its under-30 target audience. Ha'aretz reports that it is the most listened-to radio station among young people in Jordan's capital, Amman. While the broadcasts include news reports, its popularity is generally attributed to its multi-cultural musical programming that allows listeners to hear their favorite Arab and Western performers in the same broadcasts.

The hope is that the station will improve America’s image among young Arabs. While testifying before the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in June, Pattiz said, “There’s a media war going on (in the Middle East) and the weapons of that war include disinformation, incitement to violence, hate radio, government censorship and journalistic self-censorship. And the U.S. didn’t have a horse in the race.”

Whether Radio Sawa will be successful in improving America’s standing with young Arabs remains to be seen. But the willingness of the U.S. government to fund it, to the tune of $35 million in fiscal year 2002, demonstrates an awareness of the power of pop culture to help bridge cultural divides.

So why then are we using visa delays to burn down those bridges? Why, when we’re spending good money to promote cultural understanding in the Middle East, are we deliberately undercutting those efforts by belittling their cultural icons? This is not the way to win the hearts of their youth.

Think of it this way: How would Americans respond if another country announced that Steven Spielberg or Bruce Springsteen would have to sit out an awards ceremony so that background checks could be completed to make sure they weren’t terrorists? Would we think that reasonable? Would we assume that no insult was intended against the United States?

What makes this all so sad, of course, is that the problem could be fixed with modest efforts. Developing a system that expedites visa requests from performing artists and similar cultural figures, perhaps combined with some form of grandfather clause for those who have visited here in the past and who have already undergone background checks, would be a snap. And it wouldn’t harm homeland security one iota. But so far, at least, our government has refused to budge.

In a statement released to the press, New York Film Festival director Richard Pena summed it up this way: “It’s a terrible sign of what’s happening in this country today that no one seems to realize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world (not to mention to everyone else).”

Like I said before, sometimes we’re just dumb.

Steven C. Day is an attorney practicing in Wichita, Kansas.

American Democracy and National Amnesia

“From the time it was passed in 1870 until 1965, no president, no Congress, and no Supreme Court did anything serious to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment ...” -- Howard Zinn

“I’m gonna sing this verse, I ain’t gonna sing no more / Please get together, Break-up this old Jim Crow.” -- Lead Belly, “Jim Crow Blues”

Certain myths remain popular in spite of reality. Americans, for example, rely on a few admired figures and television images to help them understand the impetus behind the civil rights movement, even though the bus boycotts, voting drives and the March on Washington were just the final breach following 50 years of institutionalized repression in the South.

Likewise, many still argue that Reconstruction exacerbated Southern resentment toward blacks, leading to repressive Jim Crow laws. But this is also a simplistic, and inaccurate, reading. It’s not surprising, however, that the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction is a poorly understood period in popular consciousness: Books on the Civil War and civil rights fill up public library shelves; the period in between -- how we got from A to B -- remains a national blank.

In Democracy Betrayed (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), historian H. Leon Prather, Sr. noted when describing the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, N.C., “Most Americans remember nothing of these events despite the enormous impact that they continue to have on racial politics in the United States.”

A new PBS series, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, fills this empty space, documenting the period of segregation and the African American experience in the South from Reconstruction to the early 1950s. Co-directors and writers Bill Jersey and Richard Wormser, both veterans of the civil rights movement, clearly believe that the story of Jim Crow is central to understanding our current racial problems. There are portraits of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and examinations of the riots in Atlanta and Tulsa. The roles of everyday men and women -- sharecroppers, factory workers and prison laborers -- are also documented in the four-part series, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 22. These narratives and voices, combined with rare photographs and film, create a living, multi-layered history.

“Jim Crow” originated in the early 19th century as a character in a minstrel song by a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. Rice also helped established Crow, like Jim Dandy and Zip Coon, as a stock character in minstrel shows. At one point, Jim Crow served as a racial epitaph and, at the end of the 19th century, became the common term for a series of repressive Southern laws that singled out African Americans.

A number of tragic and traumatic events are recalled in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, including an in-depth look at the riot that took place in Wilmington, N.C. The segment begins like a black success story in the midst of Southern tyranny. Wilmington was the home of a small, prosperous black middle class made up of businessmen who owned tailor shops, drugstores and restaurants. African Americans also held a number of political offices. Many whites, however, found the combination of black economic and political power threatening. In 1898, North Carolina Democrats began a vicious campaign built on nothing more than malicious speeches and editorials claiming that white women were in danger from black men. Incredibly, women dressed in white would ride on floats in parades carrying signs reading “Protect Us.”

African-American newspaper owner Alex Manly ratcheted up the hostility level several notches when he countered with an editorial suggesting that many of the rapes that resulted in lynching were actually consensual sexual acts between white women and blacks. Although Democrats easily won the election by stuffing ballot boxes, they wanted revenge. They burned Manly’s newspaper office and began to shoot blacks on the street at random. When the violence ended the following day, the dead -- officially 25, though some place the count as high as 300 -- were dumped in the Cape Fear River. Blacks throughout the country wrote the president in protest, but President McKinley and the federal government did absolutely nothing.

There are also stirring stories of courage. Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old girl in Farmville, Va., (near Appomattox, where the Civil War ended), led her fellow students in a school-wide strike in 1951. Disgusted that the 450 black students of Moton High School were crammed into facilities made for 180, she gathered the students in the auditorium where she gave them their marching orders.

“We wanted so much here and had so little,” Johns later recalled. “And we had talents and abilities here that weren’t really being realized. And I thought that was a tragic shame. ... There wasn’t any fear. I just felt, this is your moment. Seize it.”

Together, the students marched off campus to the superintendent’s office where they demanded a modern facility like the one that housed the white students only blocks away. Their demands were met with threats: Their parents would lose their jobs and possibly go to jail. The parents, nonetheless, backed the students, and when the NAACP visited with the striking students, it was decided that separate but equal wasn’t enough: They would demand full integration. The Farmville case would eventually be bundled with four others into Brown vs. Board of Education.

Because The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow relies heavily on oral history, the program occasionally lacks the needed context to understand the events taking place. It is important, for instance, to connect the rise of populism with the acceleration of black disenfranchisement in the 1890s. When the African American vote held the balance of power in Democrat and Populist contests, the black vote was quickly eliminated. This, in fact, was part of the fuel that ignited the Wilmington riot.

By failing to provide context, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow is sometimes reminiscent of Ken Burns’ Civil War. After a general introduction is offered to a particular episode, a number of stories, biographies and events are poured into the loose mold. But without a narrative thread, a riot in Wilmington, W.E.B. Du Bois’ battle with Fisk University, and a renaissance in Harlem fail to provide a coherent history.

The total impact of the program, however, is overwhelming. As a work of oral history, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow allows submerged voices to speak out. Historians, civil rights leaders and sharecroppers talk about their lives as well as their parents and grandparents’ lives under Jim Crow rule. As director Wormser has noted in press materials, he wanted to “let African Americans tell the story of their own struggles themselves.” Letters, journals and newspaper columns are likewise utilized, providing a vivid picture of the struggles that individuals and families faced as they sought an education, steady work, the right to vote and the freedom from fear.

One might argue that Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Jim Crow era issues from a desire to forget an unpleasant historical episode in which the culture at large participated by turning its back on African Americans in the South. It’s easy in retrospect to feel proud of the abolition movement and of the Radical Republicans’ attempt to establish black rights following the Civil War -- just as it’s easy to side with Martin Luther King and condemn the South for attacking children with water hoses. But in between those two historical moments, African Americans in the South were pretty much left without a net.

While The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow will help fill this blank in the national memory, the program will also serve as a reminder of the ongoing racism that we live with everyday. You don’t need to take a class in black studies to notice Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima at the grocery store (Kraft preserves Uncle Ben because he represents quality and because Cream of Wheat lovers are fond of the old fellow. As far as Aunt Jemima goes, a man in black-face, dressed as the pancake matron, won first prize in a Milwaukee Halloween contest in 2001); or drive very far on Virginia or Georgia highways to find people who still believe that a Confederate battle flag on a bumper sticker has something do with heritage.

Spike Lee has made the argument that gangsta rap videos serve as a modern minstrel show, and it wouldn’t take too much imagination to see crumbling inner-city schools as a visage of separate but equal. Jim Crow, born of racial hatred in the South and institutionalized by an America that looked the other way, remains with us.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr. writes about music and nonfiction film for Documentary Films.net, Pop Matters.com, Dirty Linen and Sing Out! He lives with his wife and five cats in Appomattox, Va.

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